Rick Santorum had a good night on Tuesday. Two wins in deeply Republican southern states helped cement the idea that the battle for the Republican Party’s Presidential race is now a two-man contest between him and Mitt Romney.
Newt Gingrich pinned his hopes on a southern strategy. He won South Carolina early in the nominating process, then secured a victory in his home state of Georgia. As the only candidate from the south in this battle, failure to win in his own backyard in Alabama and Mississippi has left him a deeply damaged candidate.
Even some of his most ardent backers believe he may now struggle to continue to bring in the donations which have kept his show on the road even though he is defiantly proclaiming he will continue until the Republican Convention in Florida in August. However the idea of a third Gingrich comeback, even in this unpredictable race seems highly unlikely.
Santorum would like him to quit. He sees himself now as the as the main Conservative voice in the campaign, and Gingrich’s continued involvement simply splits the Right. By stepping out, he believes the anti-Romney vote could be united and give people a clearer choice in the candidate they would like to see tackle Barack Obama in November.
Santorum appeals to poorer Republican voters. He wins more votes than Romney among those who earn less than $100,000 a year. Multi-millionaire Romney does well with the better off. The former Pennsylvania senator appeals more in rural areas and small towns, while Romney picks up votes in urban and suburban places. And Santorum does better with those who describe themselves as ‘very conservative’, while the former governor of Massachusetts gets support from those who are ‘moderate to liberal’.
Santorum believes he is stronger on issues such as single sex marriage, abortion and fiscal responsibility, and that seems to chime with a large part of the Republican base.
There is no guarantee that removing Gingrich from the race would mean all his supporters switch directly to Santorum. And while delegates are awarded on a proportional representation basis, the departure of the former Speaker might actually help Romney get to the magic number of 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination even quicker.
And here is an important point in poll after poll, Santorum’s biggest vulnerability is exposed. People think Romney is more electable in November. That was case again in Mississippi and Alabama.
The fact that Santorum is even still competitive now is quite incredible. Back in December in Iowa, his poll numbers were in single figures, no voters really knew who he was or what he stood for, but by shaking a lot of hands, talking at a lot of meetings he won the state. That gave him exposure and momentum.
So – as has been the way so far in this contest – the next big battle becomes the most important. Santorum has to win in Illinois. That would shock the entire process and perhaps give him hope that he really could be the nominee.
Romney is ahead in the polls there, spending money and getting organised. He has to win to stop the narrative being about a sure fire candidate who keeps losing, and to people who are less well funded and less well organised.
Conservative voters will make the difference again. They now have to decide what is more important ideology or electability.
Follow Alan Fisher during the election campaign on Twitter @alanfisher